Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton

womens work dickey chapelle
 Dickey Chapelle taking photos on the shores of Lake Michigan during a U.S. Marines operation in 1959. (from Flickr)

Photographers seem ever more aware of the representational responsibilities which comes with their craft, but the question of who is actually doing this representing remains just as important as who is being represented and how. In a field like documentary photography this question becomes particularly essential, if only because it’s unrealistic to expect an adequate reflection of the world in all its messy complexity, when privileged, white, western men remain so often the ones taking the photographs and defining the terms of representation, dissemination, and so many other things. The gender gap in photography has come into ever greater focus in recent years, with some great initiatives launched to address it. At the same time these modes of address, for example gender specific exhibitions, themselves invite scrutiny, and need to meet with a discussion about the extent to which they do actually help to resolve the issues they intend to address, and or whether they sometimes inadvertently create different problems. Being that I am pretty much the definition of a privileged, white, western man, these are topics which I don’t feel entirely comfortable holding forth on in the usual monologue that typifies pieces on this site. Because of that and also because one of my ongoing aims is to involve other voices in this blog, I thought it would be interesting to address some of these concerns in the form of a dialogue with someone interested in many of the same questions. Enter Max Houghton, writer, senior lecturer on MA photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication and (transparency) a colleague of mine.

Max, it might seem like an obvious question but perhaps you could start by saying a little about how this topic first became of importance to you, was there a particular moment of awakening or just an ongoing sense of photography as a field marked by a gender divide?

I used to edit 8 magazine, a photography biannual, with Lauren Heinz. It’s fair to say that after we went to Perpignan for the first time – in the mid-2000s – we could be in no doubt that certain parts of le monde photographique were indisputably male. I thought it was inevitable and quite funny. At first. We didn’t positively discriminate in terms of subsequent magazine content thereafter – we never considered it – but we did get excited when we found people like Rena Effendi, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Dana Popa, Newsha Tavakolian and Lourdes Basoli, for example, and featured them in the magazine or at Host gallery. Vanessa Winship, Susan Meiselas and Jane Hilton were always on our radar, and greatly admired. Interestingly, when I interviewed them, they were all incredibly low-key about their contributions to photography. They talked profoundly about their work and the people they photographed, about ethics, about mystery, but not about themselves.

Fiona Rogers, who worked across the road at Magnum, set up Firecracker, as a platform for female photographers, which seemed like such an obvious and incredibly important thing to do. I went to an earlyish debate on the subject of Women in Photography in Brighton and noticed a divide between ‘celebrating’ women and ‘fighting for’ women – it was predominantly a difference of tone. I realised I believed in both things. When Fiona asked me to curate a month for Firecracker, I set myself a brief to find work that only a woman could make. This was not Firecracker’s remit but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Why else would I select work based on gender only? I chose work by a former student of mine, Samar Hazboun (a graduate of MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster). Samar had gained access to a women’s shelter in her native Palestine, which offered some respite for women who had suffered gender-based violence. Despite the refuge offered, the shelter itself was run within the confines of a deeply patriarchal society, so the women living there were to all intents and purposes imprisoned, and treated as shameful beings.

Choosing this work seems fundamental now to why I think it is important to discuss women in photography. It’s not really because of how women are treated within the – vast and unwieldy – industry, which encompasses the media, the art world, the photo studio, fashion etc etc, but how women are treated in the world. Of course one is not separate from the other. And while women in the UK alone are being murdered at the rate of two per week by their intimate partners (source: refuge.org), it’s necessary to look at how women are treated by men, and what kind of a society permits that. Photography is a very powerful tool of communication. That doesn’t mean I only champion work about the very worst -case scenarios (though actually, I would be most interested to see more work on subjects such as intimate partner violence, rape, low-self esteem). I think it’s a question of balance. I want all these essential subjects to be made visible but at the same time, I want to look at ways in which women do resist the patriarchy in all its forms, often with such wit. Virginia Woolf’s use of photographs in her anti-war book Three Guineas is a good place to start. I was going to apologise for the long answer, but I deleted it because I know this is something women (generalisation alert) are prone to doing.

Whenever the question of gender in photography comes up I often hear (invariably male) photographers argue that yes photography is in some respects still very male dominated, but women are actually well represented in the industry in terms of roles like curators, editors, and so forth. This might be true, but there is another issue here in that these roles often seem to be seen by people as potentially powerful but actually not particularly creative and essentially subsidiary to the ‘real’ job of going out into the world and taking photographs. I wonder whether you see a similar delineation of work in the industry between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ and if you do whether that is in some respects that is tied to a sense of the status of these roles, or perhaps something else?

I agree up to a point. We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum. Women are extremely well represented within the industry in the roles you mention, and also in academia. And yes, I guess there’s a certain amount of power, or, at least, cachet, or, at the very least, respect for such roles. But they are admin heavy. They involve doing lots of things for other people and with other people; a form of midwifery, perhaps. At the heart of these roles is caring very deeply about someone else’s work and wanting to find a way to make other people care about it too. Editing and curating are very rewarding and creative – and collaborative – practices. However, I find men feel more entitled to make their own work, and also are freer to make it, both domestically and financially. They are free to roam alone, in all sorts of ways. Women seem to find more success within institutions, where their roles are clearly delineated. The role of a photographer following stories, or ideas, seems a huge privilege and one that very often demands being out of the home. This disrupts patterns, which, even for those of us who reject them, structure society. As de Beauvoir tells us, it’s not that the woman is naturally secondary, but that society has made her so. And women, unlike other oppressed groups, are not a minority; nor are we a minority within photography. But the opportunities are different. It’s absolutely essential that we make way for female photographers and visual artists; otherwise, we keep seeing repeated male visions of the world, and come to believe it as a truth. Imagine if war had only ever been photographed by women.

I think we both recognize a gender imbalance in photography then, my next question would be how to answer it. Women only exhibitions seem to be a popular strategy at the moment, but I must admit it’s a response I have misgivings about. I feel split in that on one level I think it is worth championing and celebrating any identity, simply for the sake of it, but on the other hand I also feel these exhibitions sometimes serve more to marginalise the work on show as a sort of special interest or charity case, mere ‘women’s work’ as you said when we first discussed this, rather than validating the work as legitimate and interesting beyond the gender of its creator. I felt the 2013 exhibition Home Truths at the Photographer’s Gallery was a good example of another approach. Being about motherhood, female photographers and perspectives were dominant in the show, (if I recall correctly there were two male photographers, which I think was a nice reversal of the ‘token woman syndrome’ we often see on photography panels). Gender wasn’t directly advertised as part of the rationale for the show, even though it was clearly a major part of what was being discussed. To me this approach seems to work more effectively, but I wonder what your feelings are on this?

Yes, I agree, it was a very smart curation by Susan Bright and an important show for The Photographers’ Gallery to host too. I have to be careful what I say here, as I am co-writing, with Fiona Rogers, a book on contemporary female photographers, which I hope will put a very bright spotlight on a large number of women all at once, and it will be very obvious they are force to be reckoned with. It’s a way of ensuring women are part of the future history of photography. I would certainly like to see an exhibition that featured only female photographers because they had represented the theme of the show in the most exciting and innovative ways, and, ideally, that theme would not be one specific to women (though it could be). Positive discrimination is a method that is used in the workplace to redress imbalances – as far as I understand it, it means in practice that if two candidates offer similar skills, the one that has been historically disadvantaged would be given the job. That makes sense.

I think the way in which male photographers seem to be able to build their reputations – in part by having more self-confidence, and the subtle ways in which traditional male discourse is self-affirming – makes it more likely that opportunities come their way. This is of course self-perpetuating. I am very interested in the fact that more and more people are identifying as gender-fluid, not least because these millennia-old binaries are having to be rethought. I really like that the lack of gender certainty in my chosen name means I am probably read more often as a male voice than a female one.

I am more interested in the eye that makes the photograph, and what it has seen, than the body that hosts that eye – the mind’s eye is something different altogether. It’s not men or male photographers who are a problem, but a masculine and patriarchal discourse that goes unquestioned and dominates. I’m happy for shows, books, and whole festivals – like the nation-wide Signals festival, curated by Val Williams in 1994 – to be for women only, but at heart, it’s about a way of seeing. It’s essential for men to see that seeing too.

Embracing gender fluidity or ambiguity is an interesting answer to these problems. Like you it’s something I have a little experience of as for a long time I went by my middle name which is Kay, originally a Victorian boy’s name but now almost always assumed to be a girl’s name. People’s reactions were always interesting to say the least. I rather like the idea of a group of people disrupting the rather binary gender roles of the photography world with their ambiguous names! But I think your last point touches on an important, related issue, the wider male awkwardness about associating with feminism or self-describing as feminist. I think to end I should ask whether there are things you think photographers themselves can, or should do to address the problems we’ve been discussing?

Very much like the name Kay. It’s pretty hard to keep your gender quiet in the age of the picture byline, but I agree, there is some fun to be had.  I think men can put their awkwardness aside if they behave as people committed to equality. They don’t need to wear t-shirts – hello Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Clegg – but make sure that any any power they wield – some of which originates from their gender alone – is fairly (re)distributed, acknowledges the largely relational role of women in society, and actively tries to find ways to champion what we can term women’s work. That needs to happen in so many ways – especially in relation to childcare, ‘domestic’ violence, pornography and women in prison, for starters – and also in relation to how we as a society define what can be considered art. If anyone is unsure what the answer is to ‘Are you a feminist?’, it’s ‘Of course, it’s a political necessity.’ And if a man can’t say that and mean it, then I hope he does feel awkward.

I have found a couple of examples of female expression exceptionally moving recently – one is Beyonce’s nuanced articulation of love, jealousy, infidelity and pain on her visual album Lemonade. If you listen carefully, she is exposing herself as vulnerable and strong, which I find much more affecting than an astonishing display of girl-power. The other is Kim Cattrall on Woman’s Hour, ostensibly talking about insomnia, but making such perceptive points about (among other things) being a woman ‘without a husband’. We don’t usually hear such candid voices, which, for me anyway, articulate in different ways the experience of being female, in a society set up to venerate its men, and in which women – black women, older women, gay women, single women – women – are marginalised, automatically.

But I am straying from the question … perhaps. What can photographers do? To state the obvious, how people are pictured plays an enormous role in how they are seen. So photographers who photograph women need to think about that, and not just how they are seen, but if they are seen, and where they are seen, and by whom (these further questions are necessarily addressed to editors and curators too). I think we should all think twice about giving the same people the big prizes and ever bigger shows; we must challenge the status quo. Photographic educators can question the canon, and add to it, when they find it wanting. We can champion the work of contemporary female photographers, so their work becomes part of future history. Freud is often criticised for not being able to answer his question ‘What does a Women Want?’ but at least he asked, and at least he spent much of his career trying to find out. I think the whole industry can listen better to what is being said by women, or what is not being said but should be. The whole Women in Photography movement is in full swing at the moment – it’s lively, it’s witty and it’s inclusive – feminist never meant separatist, though it has been perceived as such. It’s the best party in town and everyone’s invited.

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